Preparing for Eternity
Over the last few years, Arthur Bispo do Rosário has become one of Brazil´s hottest art exports. Yet Rosário, who spent 50 years of his life in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Rio de Janeiro, never regarded himself as an artist: he saw his work as the fulfilment of a spiritual task. Bispo do Rosário was an autodidact whose work was limited to the materials available in his immediate environment, but many concepts of modernity are to be found in his embroidery and assemblages.
The works of Arthur Bispo do Rosário cannot be separated from his personal story. He belonged to those outsiders who do not see themselves as artists but regard their work as a personal vocation. His connection to the art world was created for him in the 1980s by others, such as the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark or Frederico Moraes, who organised Rosário´s first exhibition in Rio de Janeiro in 1989. At the same time, the Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporana in Rio, which has been administering his 802 works since 2000, provides a framework which reveals the parallels between Bispo do Rosário´s individual universe and the artistic concepts of modernity, from surrealism to staged photography.
Born in 1911 (1909 according to some sources) in Japaratuba, Sergipe on the east coast of Brazil, Bispo do Rosário found work as a cabin boy, as a signaller in the navy and as a boxer. In 1933 he was dismissed for recalcitrance and spent five years in Rio doing odd jobs at power plants, hotels or in private homes. He was first admitted for psychiatric treatment in 1938. He believed that he was Saint Joseph, who had an apparition of Jesus in the company of blue angels. At the hospital of Colinia Juliano Moreira, he began to work creatively, believing he was on a mission from God. His works soon spread across the entire building. He lived there until his death fifty years later – everything he did and everything he made was in preparation for the Last Judgement.
One important element of his work is language: he embroidered his messages on those materials which he could find where he lived: bedsheets, bedspreads, old uniforms, asylum clothing. In his home town of Japaratuba it is traditional for men to devote themselves to the slow and meditative work of sewing the banners and costumes for the procession of the Madonna. Bispo do Rosário felt comfortable in expressing himself through this handcraft, he needed neither patterns nor sketches.
His texts are diverse. There are poems, but also advertising copies for bibles, which end with the rather ironic conclusion "but even with the bible, in the psychiatric ward one is abandoned". In other texts, he comments on current events or speaks of an impossible love. The embroidered letters, which often appear in large, clear and splendidly ornamental form, are reminiscent of the incunabula of mediaeval book-making arts. In the same way, the diversity of materials, which sometimes form a small-scale but colourful patchwork, but which can also be as large as blankets, have something in common with the arte povera, for which no shred of cloth is too small to be decorated with a gesture of humility or a symbolic motif.
Bispo do Rosário did not write on cloth only, but also on paper, card and wood, and built racks for his works from countless boards. He compiled lists of names, columns of numbers, sorting systems: thus, he worked constantly on a catalogue of his own life. Valerie Smith, who, as curator of the exhibition "Rational / Irrational" put this work on show in Germany for the first time at the House of World Cultures in 2008, sees a relation between him and the Hamburg conceptual artist Hanne Darboven. Her work challenges the permanent passing of time with systematic recording methods.
Bispo´s past as a boxer and his life as a sailor crop up repeatedly in his imagery. He designed entire topographies of Brazilian landscapes and filled them with ships, embroidered in fine detail, from which little silver anchor chains dangle. He nearly always used his materials for a new interpretation: he turned beds with silk cords into celestial chariots and bicycles into Wheels of Fortune, he created assemblages out of buttons, brooms, cups, spoons, rubber boots and bottles. Sometimes, like a travelling hawker, he would combine the most diverse of items. Many elements of his works were composed in a colourful manner - empty bottles for example would be filled with brightly-coloured scraps of paper.
He also embroidered jackets and turned them into ceremonial robes. There are 32 photographs in which he presents these costumes. As Wilson Lázaro, curator of the Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporana, stresses, he always gave the photographer very strict instructions on how he wished to be pictured.
Wilson Lázaro also knows that Arthur Bispo do Rosário was in possession of a key for most of the years he spent in hospital and therefore enjoyed a special status as opposed to other inmates. The institution was a kind of asylum for him, where he could pursue his business in peace. Although he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he was spared the "hardest" of treatments. He also availed of the services of other patients, staff and visitors, for example, to acquire materials. His mission to prepare for the Last Judgement lent him an authority that others were expected to obey. He decided who was allowed to see his work. Thus his work, which actually forms a gigantic unit, a continuous accumulation, also contains performative acts.
A line can be drawn here to the "Ready Mades" of early modernity, the assemblages, which Fernandez Arman constructed in the 1960s. This explains why the art world was so enthusiastic about this autodidact who had no reciprocal interest in it. His reclusiveness, his concentration on his work, the fact that he continued to make creative art regardless of success or failure in the "outside world", lent him a special aura that lasts to this day. It has become a rare virtue for artists not to define themselves by their standing on the art market or to act independently of the art world. It is for this reason that the art world occasionally opens its arms to outsiders such as Arthur Bispo do Rosário, who embody the notion of an untouched creator.
This was how Bispo do Rosário´s work came to the Venice Biennial in 1995. His works had been on show in many group exhibitions in Brazil since the 1990s and in 2003 he was awarded a solo show in the Jeu de Paume in Paris.
From an interview of the author with Wilson Lázaro in November 2008.
Author: Katrin Bettina Müller
Born in 1909 or 1911 in Japaratuba, in the state of Sergipe in Brazil, he
worked on the high seas for a couple of years and did various odd-jobs.
His mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia, began in 1938 and soon he
started working creatively at the Colinia Juliano Moreira hospital, where
he remained until his death in 1989.
Group Exhibitions (Selected)
Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. Ireland / Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK / Fundacion La Caixa, Madrid, Spain /
Museu Bispo do Rosário + 3, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil /
Museu Oscar Niemeyer, Curitiba, Brazil /
Un Art Populaire, Fondation Cartier pour l´art contemporain, Paris, France /
Imágenes del Inconsciente,
Fundación PROA, Buenos Aires, Brazil /
Salomon R. Guggenheim Museum New York, USA /
46th International Art Exhibition Venice Biennale, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy
Solo Exhibitions (Selected)
Oriel Mostyn Gallery, Pais de Gales, Wales/UK /
Galerie National de Jeu de Paume, Paris, France /
Arthur Bispo do Rosário,
MARP - Museu de Arte de Ribeirão Preto, Sao Paulo, Brazil
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
(08 November 08 - 11 January 09)